“The fact remains, there can be no doubt that there exists within our police, organizations, apparently, that are uncontrollable and autonomous.”
“When a man’s a fascist in his own country, he’s a fascist everywhere.”
“Their subversive aims and insurrectional activities are cunningly disguised under a veneer of nationalism.”
Director Costa-Garvas made the film State of Siege after reading about the kidnapping and subsequent execution of an American in Uruguay. Costa-Garvas noted that Le Monde first reported that the man kidnapped was an ‘official.’ In the next edition, he was reported to be a ‘policeman.’ And in the third edition, he was a ‘diplomat.’
Costa-Garvas was intrigued, and so with writer Franco Solinas (The Battle of Algiers), he traveled to Uruguay to investigate why a guerilla group known as the Tupamaros would kidnap and execute, Dan Mitrione, an American official from AID (Agency for International Development) who was, supposedly, in charge of traffic. Costa-Garvas sniffed a rat, and he was right.
While some of the names of the characters in the film are fictitious, events are based on the kidnapping of Dan Mitrione, and the film’s title State of Siege refers to the state of affairs between the people of this Latin America country, the government, and the American advisors who arrive to help train fascist governments in torture techniques. The kidnapping of American AID employee, Philip Michael Santore (Yves Montand), and a (couple of other officials) takes place early in the film, and Santore is bundled off and held prisoner in a secret location while he is questioned by hooded guerillas.
Under questioning, Santore denies advising anyone on torture techniques, and denies conducting training sessions in America and various Latin American countries. His denials and insistence that he is just a petty bureaucrat are set against the documentation acquired by the guerillas. One of the guerillas tells Santore: “you claim to defend freedom and democracy. Your methods are murder, torture and fascism.”
The film cuts frequently to scenes of the guerillas’ communiqués to the government, while other scenes depict Santore’s arrival in various Latin American countries. The guerillas have tracked Santore’s bloody, shameful career throughout Latin America as he arrives in country after country, with his sleek, glossy wife and children in tow, greeted enthusiastically by various local officials who are obviously happy to see him. Some scenes show torture, and another scene shows a government official (who must be in a permanent state of moral disconnect) playing with the prod from an electric shock device. The film, however, shies away from detailing some of the more horrendous acts of torture and executions that were conducted against trade union members, demonstrators, political opponents, dissidents and subversives. Using the models of Vietnam, Algeria, and Cuba, Santore’s job was supposedly to “maintain order,” but a guerilla asks the question: “which order? Democracy or dictatorship?”
Finally, the film depicts the decision made by the guerillas to execute Santore. While Santore accepts his imminent execution as inevitable, the guerillas debate the question as to whether or not this step should be taken.
The film concludes with the idea that although Mitrione, I mean Santore, is executed, a replacement arrives to take his place. So, the State of Siege continues, and some professional critics find this ‘lack of conclusion’ distressing. Apparently, they would rather have a happy ending than reality and would like to overlook such abominations as the School of the Americas–recently renamed The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Well for people who would have liked a happier ending, there’s always Disneyland, right?
For more on the subject of Dan Mitrione and Latin America, I recommend A.J. Langguth’s book, Hidden Terrors.